So L and I went to see this French movie the other night at the Alliance Francaise somewhere in the wilds of the not-quite-upper West Side (or whatever you call 59th and Madison). Indigenes, by Rachid Bouchareb, tells the story of Algerian and other African soldiers fighting in the French Army in World War II. The Nazis are their biggest problem, but the film’s real subject matter is the different ways the four Algerians at the center of the film react as they come to realize that the ideal of “liberte, egalite, fraternite” that they’re fighting for doesn’t really apply to them.
Some American reviews have compared it to Glory, the 1989 black-soldiers-in-the-Civil-War film that was pretty okay, but Indigenes has the kind of complexity that would have just bogged down Glory‘s headling rush to the slaughter of its heroes. Except for two scenes in which the polemic gets ahead of the characterization, and a last scene that’s a little too Private Ryan-ish, Indigenes is striking in the way Bouchareb delivers the cultural conflict almost entirely through the kind of nuanced characterization that seems not to interest most Hollywood filmmakers. Maybe the most interesting character is Sergeant Martinez, a pied noir (read: French white guy who grew up in Africa) who on the one hand tries to keep the lid on his men and his own prejudices, and on the other tries to stand up for them against the bureaucracy of the French Army. Another neat little flourish is the naming of Corporal Abdelkader, the most Frenchified Algerian soldier–evoluee is the French term–after one of the leaders of the Algerian resistance movement before the war; the most educated of his compatriots, Abdelkader is the one who stirs up the most trouble, and at the same time the one who believes in France the most. A. O. Scott’s NYT review does a pretty good job of unpacking how it all works (although the economy and precision he sees in the filming of the battle scenes comes across more like by-the-numbers scene-painting to me; Bouchareb is a much better director of character than of action).
Anyway, I can’t help but wonder if some bright bulb at the Weinstein Company said in a meeting, “Hey, Africans fighting in the army of a country that oppresses them! That’s kind of like Glory!”…and that’s why a movie called Natives (and using a term that in French is patronizing if not pejorative) somehow becomes Days of Glory. Given what happens in the film, it’s about as ironic a title as you could come up with.